An illustration of a young woman watching a film on her phone.
"Whatever film we watch, it makes us think." Illustration by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada

Mental Health

How Short Films Emerged as a Key Mental Health Proponent During COVID-19

‘We wanted to reach more and more people.’

While shooting for the short film “Turbulence,” Indian actor Bishan Shetty tapped into the memories and observations he’d made when friends and family found themselves in highly stressful work situations.

“As an actor, I could stop at the end of the day and go back to my life, but then the thought of others going through it stuck with me,” Shetty told Re:Set.

“Turbulence” is about an Indian man in his 20’s working in the tech industry. On the day of his daughter’s birthday, he promises his family he’ll be home on time, but with his boss piling on extra work near the end of the day, all the times he has missed something important in his personal life as a result of work catches up to him. He struggles to deal with anxiety caused by the unending work stress. At one point, he is just still, unable to move or think. “From the information we had received, this is when people might do something to harm themselves,” Shetty explained. “What saves him that very moment is a call from his daughter.”

“The thought of others going through it [stress] stuck with me.”

Films exploring mental health aren’t new. From “Rain Man” in the 90’s to the more recent “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Dear Zindagi,” various films have portrayed significant characters with mental illnesses on screen to varied success. However, many films have also failed spectacularly at depicting mental health conditions. The criticism stems from inauthenticity, and popular culture’s misunderstanding of mental illness, which manifests in films as violent onscreen behaviour and other inaccuracies. A 2006 paper about the portrayal of mental illness in cinema found that, “While mentally-ill characters are usually relegated to plot devices and background roles, if they are given a speaking part they become ten times more likely to act violently than other speaking characters.”

An illustration showing two images from the shoot of a film about mental health. The actor is wearing a blue shirt as he prepares to the play the part of someone with mental illness.

Turbulence was produced by The National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences. Photo courtesy: Bishan Shetty

But conversation around mental health seemed to have hit critical mass over the past year due to lockdowns caused by COVID-19. Google searches for loneliness, worry and sadness increased significantly during the first months of the pandemic. And that’s where films like “Turbulence” are playing a key role in educating people about the specific aspects of mental illness.

Due to COVID-19, our smartphones have become our only way of entertainment,” Shetty said. “It’s easy to access videos like these [“Turbulence”], especially on YouTube. It has potentially a much wider audience than something like a newspaper advertisement or article, and we wanted to reach more and more people, so if they connect with it, they seek professional help.”

The quality of help one receives though is dependent on the person’s race in some parts of the world. That’s the subject of Canadian filmmaker Tyler Simmonds’ short film, “In My Mind.” In the film, Simmonds interviews several healthcare professionals, and even his parents about his own encounters with mental health, and focusing on the larger problem of resources available to black people with depression. The film also engages with ideas of being around people you love, but still feeling alone.

For Simmonds, the most challenging part was acting in the film himself. “It was really difficult to go back to a place where I had to engage with my own experiences of anxiety and depression,” Simmonds told Re:Set. “I got good people around me and kept my support system intact.”

“Art is cathartic,” he said. “The process was almost therapeutic for me.”

“Films can help people see different perspectives.”

The idea had been gestating in Simmond’s mind for two years, and he was able to get financing from reachAbility, an organization focused on increasing diversity in workplaces. The entire film was shot in a day.

The power of the medium of film came through in the response to the film.

“After watching it, a professor from Dalhousie University came up to me and said she finally understood what anxiety was,” Simmonds said. “It’s moments like these that are extremely powerful, as films can help people see different perspectives.”

A 2020 study tried to understand this power via asking young people to watch a film about the elderly. After watching the film, postgraduate students in the study looked at the elderly as “more purposeful, active and successful, responsible and with a good sense of humour.” Not all respondents reacted positively, but the responses were also due to their own individual characteristics.

“Whatever film we watch, it makes us think,” Shetty told Re:Set. “When someone watches this [“Turbulence”] and they are struggling with stress, they will ask themselves if they should seek help.”

Also read: ‘Only Show the Worst:’ People With Bipolar Disorder Share How the Media Portrayal of the Condition Impacts Them


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How Short Films Emerged as a Key Mental Health Proponent During COVID-19